Preventing Caste Discrimination on Campus
Though caste discrimination may not be against the nationwide law, some higher education institutions have sought to explicitly protect people and ensure caste equity in their communities by banning this type of discrimination on their campuses.
The caste system was a social hierarchy based on birth family that determined all aspects of life including education, occupation, social interaction, marriage, and more in India and other South Asian countries. People born into families in the bottom category — the “Dalits,” previously referred to as “untouchables” — were historically oppressed and still are impacted negatively today. Though now outlawed, the cultural prejudices of the caste system persist in some South Asian communities, even in the United States, but the discrimination often goes unreported and unaddressed.
Caste equity groups have urged the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to make caste discrimination illegal under federal law. Some local jurisdictions are considering adding it as a protected category, and Seattle recently became the first U.S. jurisdiction to do so. There also have been recent lawsuits by Silicon Valley employees drawing attention to this discrimination perpetuating in the U.S.
How Can Institutions Address Caste Discrimination?
Higher ed institutions wanting to explicitly address this often-hidden problem should consult with legal counsel and consider the following actions:
- Add caste to your nondiscrimination policy by including it in the list of prohibited forms of discrimination and harassment.
- Include caste in your Equal Employment Opportunity Statement so employees are expressly covered.
- Include caste equity protections in student, faculty, and staff union contracts. For example, the Harvard Graduate Student Union contract added caste equity protections in its non-discrimination clause. Similarly, the California Faculty Association includes caste as a protected category for contracted employees under its collective bargaining agreement.
- Build awareness on campus by educating students that caste discrimination is a problem. Also educate students about how to identify and respond to suspected incidents.
- Explain to employees during your non-discrimination training why this protection is necessary.
- Support curricular initiatives that address caste inequity. For example, the Department of South Asia Studies at the University of Pennsylvania undertook a two-year initiative to lay the foundation for a more enduring curricular and faculty engagement with caste and race to build greater awareness and combat structural oppression.
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